Stride of Innovation or Leap of Fairness? The Footwear Feud Shaking the Athletics Arena

September 29, 2023

In 2016 Nike hit the running world with the Vaporfly "supershoe" which used a combination of huge amounts of springy foam and an embedded carbon fibre plate to give athletes a claimed 4% advantage. Other shoe manufacturers felt that the technology fell outside of IAAF rules at the time and were then caught on the hop, playing catch-up, when the rules were changed to accommodate the new, short life and very expensive shoes. That signalled the start of an arms race.

What followed was an avalanche of world records, national records and personal bests, all meaningless to the athletics purist, as they were not comparing like with like.

The superspikes had followed the supershoes. Albeit with less foam, but still the pervasive carbon plate. Hastily drawn up rules limited the stack height to 40mm in road shoes, ghastly looking affairs that can prove to be downright unstable when cornering. The stack height for spikes used in 800m+ was set at 25mm.

The can of worms well and truly opened, advice went out to young athletes that they needed to invest in the technology to be competitive. Later, further advice was needed to warn the same athletes to only use the technology for the odd time trial and for races, it turned out that the carbon plate prevents the foot from flexing naturally and does part of the work for you, leading to weakening of the lower leg with overuse and increased likelihood of injury.

Mayhem ensued for race officials, being tasked with the thankless job of making sure athletes were not using illegal shoes on the track. People were turning up wearing Nike Vaporflys for track races and even for cross country!

Now Adidas has hit back with their new supershoe. Carbon energy rods and a rocker system alongside even more springy foam, used to devastating effect last weekend by the winners of bother the men's and women's races at the Berlin Marathon. The women's world record was broken by two minutes!

The shoes are ultra lightweight and the box states they are designed for one race only. They cost around €450 and sold out nearly immediately, some have since gone on secondary sale for up to €2,000!

Again, to the purist, it is no longer about the most talented runners training the best, now performance can also be bought.

World Athletics will change the rules again in November 2024. The current track spikes deemed to be giving too much of an advantage? Stack height will be limited to 20mm. Masters athletes will be exempted from the change! Yet another nightmare to police. Already stretched athletics officials will need a huge team of scrutineers.

What happened the principle of the technology being affordable and available to all?

For those of us watching on in dismay, though it may come far too late, wouldn't it be great, if they'd ban the carbon plate?

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